Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Is it Ever Okay to Cheat?

I wrote the text below several years ago in my blog, A Gamer's Eye.  I thought it would be a nice first contribution, since the discussion about the chess game I mention in it came up at the last Nerd Night.  I also talk a little about my philosophy when teaching games, whether to a non-gamer, or just a new player who may take a couple of plays before it clicks.

Some time ago, I followed a link to an article about playing games with children and whether or not it was okay to let them win. There were some good arguments on both sides, but in general, it seemed the consensus was to not let them win.

Now, I'm not a parent, and I'm not going to tell people how to raise their kids, but I *am* going to shift to another, similar subject -- playing games with people who just plain aren't "good" at them. Most of the time, this is a non-gaming roommate, spouse, or other significant other with whom you want to play games, but they don't want to play them with you because from their point of view, they always lose.

Do you let them win? Even though it's cheating?

What about not making the best move you can see to give them a chance at keeping up? Technically, that's cheating too.

How about giving strategic advice? Showing them how they can make a move that hurts you? Letting them take back a move that they made while not fully understanding the rules of the game? Where do you draw the line at how much you are willing to cheat in order to ensure that you get to play the game again?

The simple fact is that unless you are playing a game that is completely random, gaming is a skill to be practiced and refined. Those of us for whom it is a hobby may not even think about the amount of effort we put into learning how to play games. We read rules and reviews, tinker with variants and strategies, and in general, those non-gamers are correct when they see us as "better" at games than they are, simply because they don't have enough interest to put in the kind of work we do.

But for us, just reading about the games isn't enough. We want to play them. The problem, though, is that we have a hunger to play them. and finding opponents who also wish to feed that hunger as often as we can be difficult as we work around other hobbies, social commitments, jobs, kids, chores, and everything else that comes with being a grownup. So we turn to people we live with and see every day, hoping to get a game in, but we hear something like:

"Another game? Can't we play one I already know?", "But you always win...what's the point?", or "Not right now; let's just watch a movie."

And so we have to wait until we can play with our gamer friends. It's scenes like this that keep threads alive about making designer games mainstream -- we want more opponents; we want people who see the games we play and go "ooh, what's that?" instead of seeing the bits, assuming it's too hard because they don't recognize it, and going on with whatever they were doing.

And yet....and yet we have this problem with doing less than our best, because it's cheating. If we don't play our best, we can feel like we cheapened the game somehow, like we didn't get the full experience.

But look at it from the non-gamer's point of view. I remember when I was in high school, and someone had a chess set in the academic decathlon classroom (sorta like study hall, but for credit, since it was for an academic competition). I offered to play with him, since I knew the game, having played in a chess club in middle school for a while. However, while I found chess enjoyable, I wasn't in love with it enough to devote serious study to the game. He, on the other hand, did. So he beat me in 10 moves.

Then in 7.

And again.

And again.

By this point, it wasn't really fun for me, since I could see that without putting some real time and effort into learning strategy and tactics, I would never be able to give him any sort of challenge, and I didn't care enough about chess to want to make that effort. And for him, it wasn't even a mental workout, so he wasn't really getting anything out of the game either.

So he quit doing his best.

He played intuitively, making less than optimal movements to extend the game, created openings for me to take advantage of, pointed them out after the fact if I missed them, and made it a longer game of attrition rather than a short game played to checkmate. He still won, since he was, after all, far better at the game than I was.

But I also had a lot more fun.

As such, I was more willing to play again. And he enjoyed helping me learn. Sure, he may not have ever gotten a truly competitive opponent out of me, but he had someone to play against. Someone to have fun with. In the end, games are about socializing face to face with people and having a good time together. If you're close in skill, then you should of course play the best you can. To do anything less would be cheating. But if the other person isn't anywhere close to your level, relax a little. You don't have to let them win to give a false sense of self-esteem. But you can cheat in small ways to help them become better at the game. Otherwise, if they can't see that they're making any progress against you, they won't really want to play again.

And the rulebook doesn't make much of an opponent.


  1. In my opinion this can only be answered by first answering three questions: why am I playing, who am I playing with, and what am I playing? If I am demoing, then my total motivation is not to just teach you the game. It's to convince you that this game is worth buying. Not because I receive any direct incentive, but because if you buy it then you are more likely to play with me again. Think Summoner Wars. Who am I playing with: Is it my wife and some coworkers? I may not intentionally lose, but I will also not care if I miss the optimal play. Is it my Thursday play group? I'll be a lot more focused, in fact I have skipped evenings when I was incredibly tired knowing that they would not get the best from me. What am I playing: is it Battlestar Galactica? All bets are off you toaster scum. I'll be spending the evening attempting to convince someone that they might be a Cylon just so that I can brig them. To that end though, I don't think that poor play is cheating. It's like grace, an undeserved pass for mistakes made. I'm a big fan of grace.

  2. This is a great post Jacob, thanks for it.

    I think about this a lot when I teach games, and Nathan, ACE, and I debate it pretty hotly every once in a while. I try to do my best in a game, at all times, regardless of opponent, because I think that's the way that I best learn games, and it's disingenuous for me to treat people differently than I would want to be treated.

    There's also a rule in my house that I should NEVER EVER let Amy (my wife) win in any small way (nor should she afford me a similar advantage) because, as you noted in your post, it cheapens the victory and steals some special satisfaction from the victory. That satisfaction isn't derived from beating another person, but rather from the knowledge that plan was built and executed, and that it worked - that's a nice feeling.

    That said, when I teach games I begin with a specific, single statement: "I teach games in an environment of absolution, and you should feel 100% comfortable asking questions of any other player. Nobody here is trying to win - we're playing to learn the game and enjoy the flavor and mechanics, so that we can play it better the second time"

    That means that we allow take-backs, the revealing of hidden information to ask questions, correcting of rule-breaking errors, pretty much anything the players agree on to help everyone learn the game. It's not just that though, there's a very simple additional benefit to this, that players are trained to not expect negative reinforcement regarding games.

    My friends have learned (I hope) that playing games with me is fun, that I won't punish them for not being good, or chide/deride them for not knowing how to play. I'll always be patient in explaining rules and do my best to make sure everyone has a good time - in short, that I put people before the game, and always will.

    I think you nailed it in your final paragraph - "relax a little", and remember that it's about the social interaction as much as it's about the game itself, and that both need to be good in order to have a truly great game night.

    That said, Nate's a frakking toaster and he'll never convince me otherwise.


Keep it classy, nerds!